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Announcing the Inaugural André Brink Memorial Lecture, to be delivered at this year's @FranLitFest

Taking the Bulls by the horns

ONE of the most comprehensive makeovers of any South African sporting institution was undertaken by Heyneke Meyer at the turn of the century. He transformed the Blue Bulls from an underperforming, amateur outfit into a successful professional business. And he is building on the strategies honed at the Bulls to take the Springboks into the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The organisational principles Meyer instituted could apply to any modern business: a flattened, relatively transparent leadership group; a culture which prioritised the goals of the team above those of the individual and the systematic development of fresh talent to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organisation.

When Meyer was appointed head coach of the Bulls in 2001 rugby had already been professional for five years but the Bulls had not caught up. Their coaches had traditionally been drawn from the ranks of the South African Defence Force and the University of Pretoria. Their player group was dominated by the fading stars of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

There was a poor work ethic. Senior players demanded fag-like obeisance from the younger players. Gym was slipshod and amateurish, with wives and girlfriends frequently joining in, which meant there was more preening than pruning. The ruling ethos was army-style: hierarchical and authoritarian.

And their rugby was awful. In 2000 their Currie Cup team was so poor it was relegated to the B division. In Super Rugby they languished at the bottom of the league.

Meyer’s strategy was to invest in a first-class management team that was capable of recruiting and developing promising young rugby players and turning them into Springboks. Where previous practice had been to blow most of the budget on buying star players, under Meyer the focus was on building the institutional capacity to create star players.

The first thing he did was to cull 11 of the 16 Springboks he inherited and drastically cut the salaries of those who remained, such as Joost van der Westhuizen. The money saved went into a recruiting drive for coaches and young talent. The average age of players dropped from 29 to 23.

The tradition in rugby at the time was to appoint a head coach assisted by a backline and forwards coach, each of whom aspired to succeed the head coach. Meyer positioned himself differently: he was leader and co-ordinator of a team of specialists, each of whom had to know more about their field of expertise than he did.

Thus he sought expert kicking, conditioning, defence and attack coaches and then persuaded the Bulls management to employ them. He was also the first coach to insist on a dedicated team doctor to ensure consistent treatment and management of one of rugby’s biggest problems: injuries.

As Marco Botha records in his book, Coach, there was a divisive, envious culture at the Bulls prior to Meyer’s arrival. The under-19 coach hoped that the under-21 coach would mess up so that he could get his job. And the under-21 coach was secretly gunning for the Currie Cup coach’s job. It was the same with the players: each man was in it for himself.

There was little consistency in the style of rugby played by the Bulls teams. A player would have to adjust to different scrumming, tackling or kicking tactics each time he progressed to a more senior team. Under Meyer, everyone employed or contracted by the Bulls was a cog in the machine and either they all pulled in the same direction or they were out.



Coaches at every level reported directly to Meyer and he thus ensured that teams played the same style of rugby. Specialists from the senior team were deployed to junior teams to ensure their coaches were all instilling the same techniques.

If a spate of injuries meant Meyer needed to fast-track an under-21 player to the senior team, he could be confident that the boy would fit in seamlessly.

It has to be said that Meyer was fortunate in that his tenure coincided with effective leadership at the top. Bulls CEO Barend van Graan bought into Meyer’s vision and backed him all the way, which mainly meant persuading the board to support Meyer and finding the funds to pay his unprecedentedly large coaching team.

Under Van Graan, the Bulls remain the best run union in the country. Despite the fact that rugby has been professional for two decades, South African rugby still tends towards the clubbish and secretive.

Van Graan, alone among union CEOs, keeps his office door ajar, literally and figuratively. Without this kind of openness, it is unlikely Meyer would have been able to achieve what he did.

And his achievements were remarkable: he not only transformed the management model and culture, he also set the Bulls off on a winning streak. They won the Currie Cup in 2002, 2003 and 2004. They reached the semifinals of Super Rugby in 2005 and 2006 and, in 2007, became the first South African team to win the Super Rugby title.

Meyer realised that he needed to be looking to the future as well. Management teams can be relied on to last, but players wear out fast. By the age of 35 — unless they are Victor Matfield who is still playing at the age of 37 — they are past their sell-by dates.

Meyer is clear about what he looks for when he is recruiting: “Character. Mental toughness. After three playing sessions, I can tell you which player will make it and which not. After tough sessions, guys who walk out and sit out will always sit out when it’s tough.

“I also look at their upbringing: when I interview youngsters, it is usually with both their parents. Now, 90% of the time, the mother will want them to be in the hostel: their washing must be done and they must study. The father just wants them to play rugby.”

“You get kids who, in an hour’s conversation, don’t say a word. The parents speak for him. Clearly he can’t express himself. He’s never been able to fight for himself,” Meyer says.

The characteristics Meyer looks for would equally apply to an employee in any other business: self-reliance, discipline, a strong work ethic, a team player and, above all, emotional resilience. The ability to overcome setbacks and come back stronger.



Again, though, he recognised that recruiting was a speciality and he employed someone else to focus on it. The man he chose, Ian Schwartz, created a database of promising young players throughout the country and built up relationships with school coaches, agents and parents to ensure the Bulls were their first choice once they had matriculated.

Schwartz, along with almost the entire management team originally recruited by Meyer for the Bulls, is now with the Springboks. This was a precondition for Meyer’s acceptance of the job.

“Most of the best coaches in the country were at the Bulls,” he says. “I know because I spent 10 years getting them in.”

So it is the Bulls culture which dominates the national team.

This is largely a good thing. They are highly professional and dedicated. They are also modest, unassuming men who espouse another Meyer dictum: the Japanese philosophy of kaizen — continuous progress and improvement.

This is usually infinitesimal in scale but, incrementally, it amounts to a continuing capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and thus stay on top.

As in every workplace with a strong internal culture, there is the danger of narrowness: Afrikaans is too often used in team talks, which is alienating for black players.

The challenges Meyer faces now are different to those he faced at the Bulls: he does not have control over the workload or the game plans of his players when they are not on national duty.

But, being Heyneke Meyer, he has not let this defeat him. He has worked hard on his relationships with Super Rugby coaches in an attempt to get them to implement similar techniques, sending his specialist coaches to spend time with the Super Rugby franchises.

He has also achieved what no other Springbok coach has, which is an agreement that top Springboks will be periodically rested by their franchises in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup in September.

It’s all about winning, whatever it takes.

• This article first appeared in Business Day


Alexander McCall Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Dubai

The Handsome Man’s Deluxe CaféAmericanahAlexander McCall Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are two of 120 authors participating in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature programme taking place from 3 – 7 March in Dubai.

Adichie will be sharing more about her most recent, highly praised novel Americanah, and taking part in a panel discussion on International Women’s Day on the theme “Make it Happen!”

McCall Smith, whose latest book The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café was published last year, will be headlining two events and taking part in a Wonderland-themed panel discussion during the closing of the festival.

From the website:

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is the Middle East’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word, bringing people of all ages and backgrounds together with authors from across the world to promote education, debate and above all else, love of reading and writing. [...]

The 2014 Festival welcomed more than 150 writers, thinkers and speakers from 25 countries. 30,000+ visitors attended the Festival, which featured more than 200 one-off sessions and unique events to be experienced and enjoyed in a programme designed for wide appeal, with something to suit every taste.

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature Event Details

Follow the links to view the individual events and purchase tickets to hear these two Jonathan Ball authors speak:

Watch the video for highlights from last year’s festival:

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Join Janice Warman for a Discussion of The Class of 79 at the Eastern Star Press Museum, Grahamstown

The Class of 79: The story of three fellow students who risked their lives to destroy apartheidThe National English Literary Museum (NELM) and Jacana Media would like to invite you to a talk by Janice Warman, UK journalist, editor and author, about her book, The Class of 79: The story of three fellow students who risked their lives to destroy apartheid to be held in Grahamstown on Tuesday, 3 March.

The three students in question were enrolled at Rhodes University.

Warman will be in conversation with Cape Times journalist Zubeida Jaffer, who was imprisoned, poisoned and tortured for her writing and union activism. The event starts at 5:30 PM and takes place at the Eastern Star Press Museum.

Don’t miss this discussion!

Event Details

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"I Write Myself Out of Some Weird Conceit of Vanity": Athol Fugard's The Shadow of the Hummingbird Launched

Athol Fugard and Paula Fourie

Many enthusiastic theatre lovers gathered at The Book Lounge recently to celebrate the launch of the publication of South African theatre icon Athol Fugard’s latest play, The Shadow of the Hummingbird.

The piece debuted at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in March and April of 2014, and has been shown to packed houses in South African theatres subsequently. The actor, now in his 80s, stars as Oupa in a much celebrated return to the stage after a long absence.

Paula Fourie, who wrote the introductory scene of the play based on Fugard’s notebooks, joined Fugard at The Book Lounge in a fabulous discussion with the playwright. She kicked off the evening by introducing the young actor, Marviantos Baker, who was present in the audience. He has co-starred in the South African production of the play as Boba, Oupa’s grandson. “There are not too many 25-year-old actors that one can pass off as a 13-year-old. He has been a great blessing,” she said.

Fugard offered a little excursion into the history of the play and how this book came to be “the definitive final version”, citing the challenges of handing over to director Gordon Edelstein in the USA and the subsequent collaborative process that had led to the full expression of his artistic vision once he could “take over the reigns”.

Athol Fugard and Marviantoz BakerThe Shadow of the HummingbirdHe explained the collaborative process that went on behind the scenes that eneabled the work to come to fruition. One part of the process was his meeting with the Stellenbosch University drama graduate, Marviantos Baker, in whom he immediately perceived a theatrical intelligence.

The character of Boba is based on Fugard’s own grandson. As Fugard worked with Baker, the character emerged from being merely a foil that let the old man witter on, to a fully formed character. As Fugard said, “… a presence in his own right with his own story,” thus completing Oupa’s circle. “And that was liberating!”

Another dimension in the process was the collaboration with Fugard’s partner, Fourie, who is a musicologist and choral conductor, and Fugard was at pains to emphasise, “a co-creator of the work in your own right”. He says he got to the point of having written the play he had wanted to write from the very first instant. “That’s why I insisted that this be called ‘the final version’,” he said.

Athol FugardFourie reflected on the inevitable fusion of creator and character. She asked Fugard where Oupa (the character in the play) and where Athol Fugard (the playwright who tells his own story) begin and end.

Fugard said it was hard to tease them apart. He said he was Boesman in Boesman and Lena and Marius Beyleveld in The Road to Mecca. “I write myself out of some weird conceit of vanity.” He recalled an email written two days earlier to his grandson, which started with the words, “Dear Boba,” and signed “Oupa”.

With his inimitable candour, Fugard said, “I can’t untangle this … when Oupa is himself, with me as just a shadow of him, or when I am just myself in that play, with Oupa as a shadow. It’s a strange reality I have with that character. Not one that bothers me, because I love contradictions and mysteries …

“I had the same relationship at a certain point when I was working with Ross Devenish and Charles on the Eugene Marais film we made. There was honestly a moment when I thought I was just a shadow of Eugene Marais, other times when I thought Eugene was a shadow of myself. The great bond in that instance was addiction. I am an alcoholic. In the case of Boba and me, the bond between us in The Shadow of the Hummingbird is a bond of love.”

Fugard noted the shimmery nature of the creative process, saying, “Writers don’t work with a conscious awareness of what they’re putting on the page, especially if you’re intuitive. If the word seems right, if the sentence sounds right, that’s it. I don’t ask questions.”

Fourie noted that she had planned to compile a selection from Fugard’s notebooks as a way to lengthen the play, which was too short. The intention was that somebody would read the extracts as an academic prologue. “Yet, that sat uncomfortably. Suddenly I saw the old man reading his own notebooks and wrote that scene. It can’t have been easy for you to let me have that access. How comfortable were you in relinquishing control over the notebooks?”

Fugard said he had always recognised Fourie as a creative writer in her own right, with her own voice that had nothing to do with his. “To say to another artist, ‘You can’t do this, you must do that’ is not on at all. When I said, ‘Go through the notebooks. Choose the entries that will give the audience a sense of the man’ – and this you succeeded in – I sensed that would be in the play I wrote when Boba comes in. As you know, I never asked what entries you’re choosing.”

Fourie shared with the audience the fun she had had going through the notebooks, wearing the different hats of biographer, researcher and creative writer. “For me the interesting part was to give a portrait of the man who wrote the play, a man who loves in strange and crooked ways. It’s not Athol, necessarily, but Oupa. I purposely didn’t choose entries that focused on playwriting. The distinction is very complex between Athol and Oupa. I responded to what you’d written and tried to plug into it.”

The evening was a rare privilege for all who were fortunate enough to attend. There was the candour and energy of a Fugard play enacted in front of one, yet the intimacy of eavesdropping on two lovers talking about the thing they care about the most – a joint project that has given them frustration and delight beyond their best expectations.


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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) live tweeted from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:



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Taste Delicious Snacks and Stock Up On LCHF Goodies at the Banting Bazaar in Cape Town

The Real Meal RevolutionDie kosrevolusie Lose It! Magazine is hosting Banting Bazaar markets at 14 Hope Street in Gardens.

The market is a great place to try unique banting dishes, stock up on products and interact with other people engaged in the LCHF lifestyle (perhaps you’ll even spot Tim Noakes and the The Real Meal Revolution team!).

The next Banting Bazaar will be on Saturday, 7 March, at 9 AM to 2 PM.

Don’t miss it!

Event Details

  • Date: Saturday, 7 March 2015
  • Time: 9 AM to 2 PM
  • Venue: 14 Hope Street
    Gardens | Map
  • More details: 021 408 3848

Book Details

Join Charles van Onselen for the Launch of Showdown at the Red Lion in Johannesburg

Showdown at the Red Lion launch

Showdown at the Red Lion: The Life and Times of Jack McLoughlin, 1859–1910Jonathan Ball and Love Books would like to invite you to attend the launch of Showdown at the Red Lion: The Life and Times of Jack McLoughlin, 1859–1910 by Charles van Onselen.

Van Onselen will be discussing his book, which is a true story of a bandit infamous in the bars and brothels of early Johannesburg, with Keith Breckenridge.

The launch will be at Love Books at 5:30 for 6 PM on Wednesday, 4 March. Please note that it is essential to RSVP for catering purposes.

Don’t miss it!

Event Details

  • Date: Wednesday, 4 March 2015
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6 PM
  • Venue: Love Books
    The Bamboo Lifestyle Centre
    53 Rustenburg Road
    Melville | Map
  • Interviewer: Keith Breckenridge
  • RSVP:

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